Government & Politics
 

“Balance this city”

Oh! Another day, another shameful story of institutional and individual police terror and racism in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Sunday, The Times-Picayune added new details to the mysterious death of Henry Glover, whose remains were founded in a burned car last seen being driven by New Orleans police officers.

Meanwhile, The Advocate in Baton Rouge has an absolutely must-read investigation into the until-now suppressed claims of racism and brutality by out-of-state police who helped support the Baton Rouge Police Department in the days immediately after Katrina.

One trooper said Baton Rouge officers referred to black people as “animals” that needed to be beaten down. Troopers also reported that officers said they were under orders to make life rough for New Orleans evacuees so they would leave town.

State Police in New Mexico and Michigan cited a pattern of violence and discrimination when they pulled their troopers out of Baton Rouge after just two days of helping local police deal with an influx of hurricane evacuees in September 2005.

The Baton Rouge Police Department investigated the allegations but refused to publicly release documents related to the Internal Affairs probe after it was concluded. The Advocate sued in July 2006, seeking the documents under the state public records law, and in May 2009 the state Supreme Court ruled for the newspaper.

Yikes, I wonder how BRPD’s reaction to the report might smooth this over.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Jeff LeDuff defends his department’s performance after Katrina, noting that the city was full of evacuees and rife with stories of looting and shooting in New Orleans.

“We had a charge to hold the line and balance this city and keep it from being overrun and looted and fired upon,” he said.

Ah, the ol’ “Hurricane evacuees and flood victims were a bunch of craven criminals” defense.

The NOPD and BRPD aren’t the only organizations to treat the greatest humanitarian disaster in modern U.S. history as if it were a prison uprising.

Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden’s reaction to the allegations about his police department:

“I was not going to let Baton Rouge be overrun by some people from New Orleans who were hell-bent on committing crimes,” he said in an interview last week.

He said his message to those “thugs who are robbing, raping and looting in New Orleans” was that he would provide them shelter, but “it will not be at the Red Cross — it’s going to be in jail.”

“If there’s a blame to be placed on aggressive enforcement, blame it on me,” he added.

Excuse me for not having much respect for Holden’s conditional willingness to take the fall for the brutality and racism of his police department. Not only should he refuse to stand behind officers who shook down hurricane evacuees, he should refuse to stand behind the discredited rationale for ordering ‘aggressive enforcement.’

The stories of rampant rape and murder in the wake of the flood were proven wildly exaggerated, if not entirely false.

The Baton Rouge crew is at least being forthright in its defense of itself, at least LeDuff and Holden haven’t walked away from that rationale – the unsupportable belief that evacuees were primed to pillage their bucolic paradise.

The same cannot be said for others. Elsewhere, the defense of police terror or the defense of ignoring police terror is not so explicitly explained. It wasn’t the outright lie that flood victims were insane brutes; the situation was more of an indefinable chaos.

Jeffrey from Library Chronicles has an essential post today about The Times-Picayune’s recent editorial outrage over new confirmations about police terror during the Katrina crisis. He points to Gordon Russell’s recent examination, as part of a new partnership between The Times-Picayune and ProPublica, of a potential police shooting that he happened upon while reporting after Katrina.

These events transpired in September of 2005 but Russell is only telling us about them in December 2009. His account appeared in the paper as part of the T-P’s “Law and Disorder” series on police misconduct after the flood which itself was put together in a cooperative effort with PBS’ Frontline and Pro Publica. To me, this looks suspiciously like no one at the T-P thought it was okay to print any of this stuff until it was clear that there might me interest from outside media. If Frontline didn’t want to do the story, would the T-P have just kept quiet?

Jeffrey emphasizes Russell’s own explanation for failing to pursue the story, “chalking it up to the fog of Katrina.”

It really does seem like the great hope of a lot of people was that time alone could make it all go away.

It’s not just the police murder stories that The Times-Picayune, until now, failed to expose. They also showed very little interest in probing the deaths at Memorial Hospital, recently the subject of a huge New York Times Magazine and ProPublica partnership.

That isn’t to simply pile on The Times-Picayune; they don’t make up the quotes.

Recently re-elected coroner Frank Minyard, after re-examining autopsy reports as a result of that investigation, declined to classify one of the deaths as a homicide. Without getting into the particulars of whether or not his decision was right or wrong, his explanation typifies the desire to “move on.”

I feel this is the way to go, just to put Memorial hospital to rest.

I’m sorry, but did Jack Nicholson die and make Minyard general? Does Minyard, by cutting off investigation, think he is protecting the public? Or is he transferring his own inability to handle the truth onto the public?

I suspect that some Times-Picayune higher-ups have at times felt similarly to Minyard, felt that exploring instances in which those who directly or indirectly represent the state – law enforcement personnel, medical professionals, elected officials – did not prioritize helping people in their time of need would make ‘recovery’ more difficult and that these kinds of allegations and instances needed to be cordoned off into separate context.

But the deaths at Memorial, the scores of shootings of civilians by police, the turning away of evacuees by Gretna police on the Crescent City Connection, the pattern and practice of racism toward African American evacuees by Baton Rouge police cannot be classified in the separate realm of the brain reserved to suppress traumatic memories. The bodies of victims are not buried in separate graveyards. Their families have not vanished.

There is no separate legal system.

The decision – whether it was conscious or unconscious – to not continuously and vigorously pursue allegations of racism and brutality during the disaster did not spare this city from any divisiveness.

The only people spared from anything were the perpetrators that have been spared from punishment and the victims who have been spared from seeing justice served.

Still, I hesitate to assign so much blame to any one institution or individual for the belated publicity.

The clamor for truth and justice from the public has been lacking too. Many New Orleanians wanted to “move on” more than they wanted justice for their neighbors.  Or people became comfortable in ambivalence or cynicism. Maybe people had to cope that way.

I don’t know. I can’t know. I wasn’t here.

But I will not absolve myself.

At times, I have felt as though the breadth of the allegations made justice – at least the courthouse kind –  an impractical pursuit.

That is cynicism at its worst.

I was wrong.

When it comes to racism, practicality is not something one fights for. Justice is.

I should have done more to fight for it and spent less time speculating about its unlikelihood.

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